The Wright religion

Over at AlterNet, Terrence McNally interviews Robert Wright about the latter’s new book, The Evolution of God.  The pertinent issue here is the interview explores the factors that make religion a force for good or for ill.  Wright was raised Southern Baptist but strayed from the faith and is now a spiritually-oriented agnostic.

The key to drawing out the best of a religion, he says, lies in a basic pattern: “When a group of people believes they can gain through peaceful interaction with others, it brings out the tolerance of their culture and their religion.”  That is, religions will play nice when their adherents believe they can benefit from doing so.  Conversely, if religionists see themselves as under attack, they’ll clench up:

When people see their interests threatened by another group, this perception brings out the most belligerent parts of their religion. Such circumstances are good news for violent extremists and bad news for moderates. What Obama is trying to do — make Palestinians feel less threatened, and make Muslims generally feel more respected — may now, as it did in ancient times, bring out the tolerant side of a religion.

This thesis is both hopeful and cynical: hopeful, because it points the way to greater peace and understanding; cynical, because it sees human nature as fundamentally self-interested and self-justifying.  If something can help us, we find reasons to like it; if it can’t, we don’t.

Wright notes that this question of how to tamp down religions’ destructive impulses and stoke their constructive ones has taken on new prominence and urgency after 9/11 — though it has always been significant in our pluralistic world.  And he wrote the book primarily to help humanity answer it:

Asking whether Islam — or any other faith — is a religion of peace or of war, is just a dumb question. I don’t want to offend anybody, but all religions have their good moments and bad moments. In the scriptures of all of them you see belligerent passages and you see tolerant passages. I wanted to look at what circumstances gave rise to those two kinds of scriptures.

What was going on on the ground when, in the book of Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelites to annihilate all nearby people who don’t worship him? And what’s going on in other parts of the Hebrew bible, when the Israelites say to a neighbor, “You’ve got your God, we’ve got our God, can’t we get along?”

You see the same kind of variation in all the Abrahamic scriptures. I wanted to know how you account for the difference, hoping that would tell us something about what circumstances bring out the best and worst in a religion today. That’s the basic mission.

The interview is worth a read if you have a few minutes.

Jesse Lava also blogs at

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